Monday, January 31, 2011

augmented train whistle

I just heard, for the first time in my life, a train whistle that was actually an augmented chord. Culturally, the augmented chord is the audio symbol of the train whistle: in music and movies that's how it's portrayed. But in real life, most train whistles are something else, usually major chords in various states of nearly-in-tune. And of course there's the Doppler effect, which swerves the sound of a moving thing, to help destabilize the sound. But I've never ever heard a real train that made a real augmented chord. Until just now.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Protag love, Japanese style

Check out this review of the Jazz Protagonists album Blizz Blazz, on a Japanese site. It starts with, we think, a restaurant review, then has our CD reviewed in orange.

寛いだピアノ・トリオ、スウィングしてて非常に気持ち良いですね、THE JAZZ PROTAGONISTS 「BLIZZ BLAZZ」。何で買おうと思ったんだっけな、、、寺島さん絡みだったかな、よく覚えていませんが、ジャケットを見てコレは多分来るんじゃないか、と思ったのは確かです。センター奥に居るベーシストの表情が何ともヨロシイ、ソレとジャケットのレイアウト、単純にカッコいいですよね!音を感じさせるとでも言うか、少なくとも女性の裸を載せれば、どうよ?っていう、カッコ悪いレーベルのダサいジャケとは違いましたな。
音を聴いてみるとオリジナルで固めていて、しかも伝わる演奏の雰囲気はとてもリラックス、美旋律で印象付けて後は適当、というタイプじゃない、BARRY BRAKEなるピアニスト、なかなかやるね。

The auto-translate results are, though hilarious, impossible to understand. Our friend Ansel, though, has just dispatched a roughly sketched translation. Thanks, Ansel!

A relaxed piano trio, swingin' and super feel-good - The Jazz Protagonists, "Blizz Blazz". Why did I decide to buy this, again... It might have been something Mr. Terajima-related, I don't really remember, but what I do know is that I felt it was probably coming with me when I looked at the cover. The bassist in the rear center's expression was quite pleasant; that, and the cover layout was simplistic, in a cool way! You could maybe say that it makes you feel the sound, or at the very least, it was different from those pathetic covers from those lame labels that are like, "Hey, whaddya say we put a naked lady on the front?"

Listening to it, it was original and solid, not to mention the atmosphere conveyed by the performance was very relaxed; melodic and impressive, and also proper, seems like that's the type he is, the pianist Barry Brake, he does a surprisingly good job.

The album's drummer, Kuper, clearly seems to have different tastes than the pianist, Brake: Mr. Brake is more classical, with a singing melody, and brings you to a swingy, thrilling climax point. Mr. Kuper possesses a more present-day feeling; in track 8 he presents a funky, fun feeling, while in track 9 he brings out the rhythm right away, then seems to ad-lib it freely with spontaneous patterns, almost as though the song was assembled by them on the fly, rather than being written. This track seemed to be the odd one out. In Mr. Brake's songs, the slightly dark-feeling, soothing poetry in track 4, the theme, and the earthy track 5 which was both improvisational and zestful, all really shine.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

king pelican at the olmos pharmacy, this saturday

At first blush, it may seem strange that two members of the Jazz Protagonists and two members of Two Tons of Steel would form a band together. (The band is King Pelican, which plays straight-up surf rock.) It all makes sense, though, when you realize that both bands are planted firmly in the present day while recognizing the beauty and value of a moment in the recent past, and the value of Getting It Right.

Unfortunately, Greg Norris, string bassist for the Protags and electric bassist for Pelican, is otherwise engaged this Saturday. The surf band needed a fill-in, and, as an indication of how desperate we are for bassists in SA in 2011, they asked ... me.

So, I'll be throwing down on my old main instrument this coming Saturday evening at the Olmos Pharmacy, at 8pm. Great burgers, legendary shakes (speaking of getting something right from a golden era), happening surf rock. See you there.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

the first moment of gen-x

I think I have uncovered the moment when Generation X became Generation X. That is, the moment when that generation began to show its colors, to take on the characteristics that later defined it. After all, it's not just a set of years in which people were born; it's a way of being.

Right around 1977, at Harmony Hills Elementary, a girl, possibly Camille Brown, having just experienced something exasperating, uttered that glottal sigh (which I'll spell "xhhhh") known to all schoolchildren to be an expression of disgust and displeasure, and said, "Xhhhh! What's your function?"

There you have it: the ironic stance, the joking-but-not-joking, the in-reference to a piece of wall-to-wall pop culture (in this case, Schoolhouse Rock's "Conjunction Junction"), re-appropriated toward one's own purposes. 17 years before the first episode of Friends, it's all there.

As I've remarked before, all the raw materials for this kind of statement were present for generations. You could have had a radio station that played The Best Of The 20s, 30s, And Today back in the forties — but you didn't. You could have had ironic allusions to The Wizard of Oz by Lucy and Ricky — but you didn't.

So, one fine day in 1977, elementary-school kids all over the country spontaneously said something not-new and entirely new, and a generation was born.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

new jazz protagonists pictures

We got together with our new photographer, the dynamic Julia Novikova, to take a round of pictures. She was simply a delight to work with, utterly professional, with a sparkling personality and friendly demeanor that immediately made us comfortable. She also understands how important it is for a jazz musician to look slammin' in a suit.

We like the results.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

wesley music

The other day I got a note from a man named Daryl Stewart, who's with an English company that sources music for funeral services. Apparently someone had asked them to supply my song "My Daddy Sang To Me" for an upcoming service. He asked if he could purchase a copy. So I ripped out a super-high-quality file and sent it to him. Today I got notice that he'd deposited a nice little sum in my paypal account.

I actually don't mind if people use my music free: after all, that very song is on youtube, available to the internet world free of charge day and night. But as a result of that free distribution, someone heard the song and it touched them. And they had the integrity and coolness to track me down and pay for it.

I feel my heart strangely warmed.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

farewell to grace

I just got back from playing the service at Grace Anglican Fellowship, where I've been leading music for about 4 months. I've been choosing songs and song orders, charting up charts, rehearsing the band, and leading the congregation every week for their only service, Sunday at 5pm.

What a great time it's been. This is one of the churches that broke off, fairly peacefully, with Christ Episcopal this summer. With the largest church in the diocese dividing into three smaller groups, it's been amazing to see the lack of rancor. (One also sees some of the same people off and on at all three congregations, and there appears to be a high level of we're-still-friends to it.) Even among those who have felt wounded in the process, there's a great deal of grace and positive energy.

Grace is a dynamic, spirit-filled group of people who really want to serve God well and in a new way. I've been proud to be associated with them; I've especially been proud and delighted to work with their worship team, which is embarrassingly well-stocked with good singers and players. Even though my contract with them is up, my heart continues with them in all they do.

Monday, January 10, 2011

the mystery of coffee

Good coffee is such a wonderful thing. I've gotten into a pattern of making delicious lattes. Mainly because Catherine doesn't like the burned-tasting French and Italian roasts that are popular in the Starbucks era, I've recently been buying milder roasts. This is slightly silly because [a] Catherine really doesn't like coffee at all and doesn't drink it more than about once every 2 years or so, and [b] I do like those deeper roasts.

Anyway. Lattes.

I grind the beans very very finely, and then make just enough in the press to make one large mug; then add hot half-and-half to it. Absolutely beautiful.

I've often wondered how on earth it occurred to our Central American ancestors, when faced with this bush full of red berries, to: pick the berries, forget the fruit, keep the seed, burn the seed, crush it, and soak it in boiling water. Why not do that with any seed? Why do that with this one? Whatever the answer, it's lost in the mists of time, and all we're left with is one of the great gifts of the Americas to civilization.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

more on modes

My discussion of modes from last week prompted some interesting conversation that I thought I'd share.

Darren pointed out that you can start on a white key on the piano and play a scale without any black keys. Starting on A gives you the natural minor scale (which is the Aeolian mode) and starting on C gives you the major scale (which is the Ionian mode). Starting on any other white key (B, D, E, F, or G) gives you the modes. If you have a mode and want to change keys, you have the template to know the scale degrees within the mode of choice.

So, in the example of "Greensleeves" in the other day's post, E-Dorian would have 2 sharps. To make that as a key signature, though, is so confusing for trained musicians that I don't do it. I just write in a sharp on the C.

Here are all the Western modes (called the church modes). Play upward on all white keys starting and ending on:
C - Ionian
D - Dorian
E - Phrygian
F - Lydian
G - Mixolydian
A - Aeolian
B - Locrian

Thus, if you want to put something in the key of F-Dorian, then it should have 3 flats. (Straight F-minor would have 4.)

More interesting than the mode itself is the characters of the keys if you play around in them for a while.

D - Dorian: Renaissance sound, but also a cool jazz sound. It won't sound jazzy like big-band or 20s jazz, but it'll give you that Miles Davis "Kind of Blue" mood. Also, see Santana.

E - Phrygian: Distinctly Spanish sounding. You hear it a lot with guitarists, because E is a great key to fart around in by leaving the E-strings open and scooting up just one fret to an F, and back and forth. Flamenco!

F - Lydian: Instantly recognizable as "wonder" music from movies. Any time you get kid actors together with John Williams, you've got Lydian mode. It's also, for classical composers, a go-to way of making a major key sound modern. You hear it all the time in new operas by Jake Heggie and Donald Hagen.

G - Mixolydian: more Renaissance, this time the major version. The second of my two examples up top there, in 6/8, gives you Mixolydian in a nutshell. You hear it all the time (with a few blue notes in there) in the Ray Charles era. Rock bands, especially the Beatles and other Brit bands, used it a lot. "You Really Got Me," "Norwegian Wood."

A - Aeolian: it's pretty much straight minor, but without any sharp sevens added in it gets a natural minor sound that suits rock-n-roll. Anything in a minor key in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s was probably really Aeolian. (Contrast that with late 90s pop by Britney Spears or Backstreet Boys, who stuck those sharp sevens in like crazy. Really sounded unusual at the time.)

B - Locrian: I can't think of any real uses of this mode outside of very obscure death metal, and even then my ear wants to resolve it to some other more stable-sounding tonality. As a separate tonality, Locrian gets a "Participant" ribbon. Jazzers use the locrian scale, though, when playing the iiº in a iiº - V7 - i progression.

Keep in mind these are all just Western scales. There are tons of other scales. I was in a Greek Orthodox church once where they sang a hymn whose key signature was 2 flats and 2 sharps. Figure that one out!

(Actually Mike Brannon and I did figure it out during one of our afternoon sessions, and played a couple of tunes, one with a tonal center of G and one with a tonal center of D. The G sounded more minor-ish and the D sounded more major-ish, but they were both pretty exotic sounding.)

The Japanese have several scales, the most recognizable one of which may be the Insen scale: D-Eb-G-A-C. Very typically Japanese-sounding.

Paul Soupiset asked about harmonic-minor-sounding mode that's in the synth line in the CCCP song American Soviets. Great 80s techno there. The answer is that it's not in a Western scale at all. It's in a Middle Eastern scale known as the Phrygian dominant, or (in Hebrew) Ahava Rabboh, or (in Arabic) Hijaz-Nahawand maqam, with a major 3rd and a flat 2. (This is what makes you think of harmonic minor, because when you play the harmonic minor scale as a scale you hit that interval of an augmented second [which is the same as a minor third], so in the key of A-minor it's E - F - G# - A. With an Arabic scale in the key of A that weird interval falls on the second, giving you A - Bb - C# - D)

The song is in G, and has a major flavor because of the B-natural. But it has an exotic flavor because of the A-flat. So, here's the scale:

G Ab B C D Eb F G

That distance between Ab and B is called an augmented second, because it's an A going to a B, but it sounds like a minor third; you could spell it G# to B.

A terminology note, though: we use the word "mode" to refer specifically to the use of a conventional Western diatonic scale starting from different points. That is, each mode has two half-tones separating a set of two and three whole tones, respectively. (It's easy to see on the piano keyboard, because whole tones have a black key wedged between them.)

So, no matter which mode you're in — Dorian (WHWWWHW) or Mixolydian (WWHWWHW) — that pattern pertains. In fact, you could express the different modes like this:

Phrygian HWWWHWW
Mixolydian WWHWWHW

Notice the order of whole steps and half steps never changes: just the starting and ending spot. If you squint your eyes, you can even see the pattern of the piano keyboard implicit there.

The harmonic minor scale, then, isn't a mode, because it doesn't have that pattern. Nor does the melodic minor.

Harmonic and melodic minor in Western music work like a dynamic font on your computer. That is, when you're in A-minor, you're playing an A natural minor scale, no sharps, no flats, just straight Aeolian mode, but it has the harmonic minor and melodic minor attached to it, so once you hit certain keystroke they kick in.

(Dynamic fonts do the same thing with ligatures. An f is an f, but when you hit an f and then a t, the f changes to fit; same with two fs; same with other letters that kick in based on what comes before and after. For instance, check out how a Mac handles the Zapfino font, much more like handwriting than just a dead font.)

The harmonic minor is just a minor scale with a raised 7th:
A B C D E F #G A
The melodic minor scale, as you remember, is actually two scales, one for going up...
A B C D E F# G# A
... and one for going down...
... that last one being a simple natural minor scale. Apparently our ancestors didn't mind the lowered 7th going down but really wanted it going up, and couldn't stand the augmented 2nd. (Probably reminded them of evil Saracens!) So they raised the 6th degree as well. (That's why you have F# and G# above — it ends up sounding just like a major scale.)

If you really want to sound classical you just follow those rules. Sharp the 6 and 7 when your melody goes up, and leave them natural going down.

That only applies to a melody: when putting harmonies behind it, the harmonic minor kicks in and you always use a G#. That's why I was careful above to say "when you play the harmonic minor scale as a scale." You never do in the practice of real music, because whenever a melody is scalar, the melodic minor kicks in. You utilize the notes of the harmonic minor as you go about filling in the harmony. We want the 7 to be sharped but not the 6.

I always got cross with teachers who wanted you to "practice the harmonic minor scale," meaning they wanted you to get good at fluidly playing up and down your instrument using the flat 6 and sharp 7. That's something you will never have to do in classical music, and very rarely even in modern stuff. I could never, and I do mean never, get any music instructor to understand this basic principle. (Of course, teachers of instruments, no matter how good they are, aren't guaranteed to be aces in theory.)

By the way, for a nice textbook use of melodic minor, look no further than good old "Greensleeves": "sleeping" vs "watch are keeping." The downward motion of "sleeping" gives you a D-natural in the key of E-minor. But the (eventual) upward motion of "watch are keeping," especially since it goes from the seventh degree to the tonic note, really makes the Western ear crave a leading tone. So you sharp the 7, and because of that, you sharp the 6 too.

Leave them both natural, and it sounds dull and wrong. Sharp only the 7, and you sound like one of the magi. (You might not even be able to sing it without playing it on some instrument. It just doesn't fit in the Western throat.)

I'm endlessly fascinated with this stuff, the strange alchemy of science and perception and social history all rolled up.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

tapestry of bronze

Here's a good way to begin a new year: with new editions of some superb books.

An author I'm proud to call a friend, Alice Underwood, has teamed with Victoria Grossack to produce a series of books called Tapestry of Bronze, that recast familiar and unfamiliar stories set in Bronze Age Greece in the form of novels. In so doing, they also yank the tropes of mythos into the tropes of the novel in ways that surprise and inform, deepen our understanding of a very foreign time, and, not least, delight the reader with just about every page.

One of their favorite tricks is what Viktor Schklovsky called ostranenie: "strangemaking." They'll plop you down in a scene and let you take in its unfamiliar combination of the barbaric and the civilized, and let you get hooked on whatever thing happens to be going on, and only a beat later allow you to realize that you are indeed in the middle of a familiar scene from myth or legend — the quiz of the Sphinx, Amphion building the walls of Thebes — and seeing it for the first time. After enough of this, you realize how conveniently we imagine ancient Greeks as people just like us only costumed. The truth is wilder and weirder, and far more interesting, and the result of seeing it is that we begin to see ourselves for the first time as well.

I especially enjoy the way the authors create such realistic nodes between the rational and the mythical: things that, one sees, can easily be explained by the natural language of a modern novel but are also easily explained by the supernatural language of the mythical mind. Lesser authors would simply use this trick to rob a story of its magic, or explain away some phenomenon; with Underwood and Grossack you feel again and again as if a black-and-white photo has been made into full color.

I'll also point out that when you buy these books, which are published by CreateSpace, you're helping affirm a new relationship between author and audience that suits our new century well, and points toward a solution for revitalizing all kinds of art in a way that finally makes economic sense for both author and audience.

One of the great pleasures of civilization is to sit down with a storyteller you know will absorb and satisfy. I can't wait.

Alice Underwood's Amazon page